In June 1906, Mark Twain wrote in a letter to his friend William Dean Howells, “I have been dictating some fearful things, for 4 successive mornings—for no eye but yours to see until I have been dead a century—if then. But I got them out of my system, where they have been festering for years—& that was the main thing. I feel better, now.”
That same year, Twain published 250 anonymous copies of “What Is Man?,” a controversial (for its time), philosophical dialogue arguing that man is a machine. It constituted Twain’s gospel. “Every thought in [these papers] has been thought (and accepted as unassailable truth) by millions upon millions of men—and concealed, kept private,” he wrote in its introduction. “Why did they not speak out? Because they dreaded (and could not bear) the disapproval of the people around them….The same reason has restrained me, I think.”
Shortly after Twain’s death four years later, The New York Times revealed him as the dialogue’s author. A reviewer in Current Literature was eager to attribute the pessimism within as a manifestation of Twain’s late-in-life grief, writing, “It is surely one of the ironies of fate that Mark Twain, greatest of American humorists, should have been a sad-hearted man, a fatalist and a pessimist. He did not often reveal his philosophy. He almost seemed ashamed of it.”
The truth is more complicated. Throughout his life in the public eye, Twain attempted to pull off a delicate balancing act—to provoke but not repel; to scandalize only to the extent that he remained an in-demand public figure. He was a humorist and a cynic with a sharp, curmudgeonly wit who skewered and satirized hypocrisy and injustice with an eagerness bordering on glee. But according to Tom Quirk, professor emeritus at the University of Missouri and author of the 2007 book Mark Twain and Human Nature, Twain needed the money and so had to find a compromise between being principled about his private beliefs and being popular. The result was that he sometimes censored himself.
When he wrote to Howells, Twain was in the midst of composing a series of essays that reveal a deeper cynicism than he ever shared with his contemporary readers. Published posthumously as the 1962 collection Letters from the Earth, the essays represent the fullest expression of Twain’s deep-seated doubts about humanity and religion. As might be expected of America’s most renowned humorist, Twain used satire to relay these doubts. He chose not to publish the pieces during his lifetime, and this freed him to be more scathing than he otherwise would have dared. An article published in the New York Times in August 1962, shortly before the collection’s publication, referred to it as “a series of highly inflammatory anti-religious essays” that was “venomous in viewpoint.”
Letters from the Earth is a chaotic, disjointed patchwork of material that includes a series of letters written from Satan’s point of view; a line-by-line dissection of James Fenimore Cooper’s prose; a short story about cats written for Twain’s daughters that uses the word “cat” more than 120 times, and instructions for the order in which gentlemen should carry young ladies out of boarding houses during a fire. Twain’s daughter Clara initially refused to allow the volume’s publication when his literary executor, Bernard DeVoto, approached her in 1939, 29 years after Twain’s death, and DeVoto withheld it to respect her wishes. She believed that the material represented a “distorted” view of her father’s attitude on religion but changed her mind more than two decades later, perhaps reconsidering DeVoto’s suggestion in light of Soviet charges that the U.S. was suppressing Twain’s ideas and a gradual shift from her belief that the collection would hurt her father’s reputation. A more tolerant, mid-20th-century society convinced her that “Mark Twain belonged to the world.”
When the collection debuted, the pieces that deal most directly with Twain’s cynicism about human nature and organized religion were largely attributed to the suffering he endured at the end of his life: the death of his daughter Susy in 1896, the death of his wife, Olivia, in 1904, and his own ill health and financial hardships.
But this simplified, cause-and-effect reading belies the fraught and complex history of Twain’s relationship with religion. Quirk calls it “melodramatic.” Twain, Quirk says, had a complicated relationship with death. He survived three of his four children, the third of whom died four months before he did. “Life was not a valuable gift,” writes Twain as Satan in Letters from the Earth, “but death was.” When his daughter Jean died in 1909, Twain wrote that he wouldn’t choose to bring her back. “If a word would do it,” he insisted, “I would beg for strength to withhold the word.”
While Quirk doubts that Twain believed in an afterlife, he notes that Twain did express a hope to someday join his family there. Yet this hope never took the form of unquestioning belief—with Twain, things rarely did. A largely self-educated free-thinker who was raised Protestant and read the entire Bible by the time he was 15 (or so he said), Twain was a skeptic of any authority that demanded blind obedience and a keen observer of logical fallacies. In Letters from the Earth, Twain takes aim at the afterlife as a fanciful, absurd construction that humans spend too much time preparing for. In almost every popular conception of heaven, Satan points out, angels are playing the harp and singing. “Yet you can see how unreal it is to [humans],” he writes to the other archangels, “and how little it takes a grip upon them as being fact, for they make no practical preparation for the great change: you never see one of them with a harp, you never see one of them sing.” After enumerating its many absurdities, Satan wonders “when you consider that heaven, and how crushingly charged it is with everything that is repulsive to a human being, how can we believe a human being invented it?”
Twain knew such musings from Satan’s mouth threatened the fabric of his society and his reputation. Paul Baender, editor of The Works of Mark Twain: What Is Man? and Other Philosophical Writings, writes that “Twain’s statement that [Letters from the Earth] would never be published was apparently only a way of classifying it among those manuscripts too shocking for general knowledge.” But Twain likely wouldn’t have viewed the reticence to express his true beliefs as hypocritical. According to Baender, “secret skeptics” during this time period “thought they were honorable in maintaining their private beliefs while submitting to the compromise of an outer decorum.” The very composition of Letters from the Earth was thus a catharsis for him.
“Mark Twain,” American’s Best Humorist (ca. 1885). Joseph Ferdinand Keppler and Merkel & Ottman Mayer. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Baender writes that Twain’s “reluctance to disclose his opinions to the public led him to seek indirect ways of presenting them; yet he left many manuscripts incomplete, and he suppressed almost all he finished, probably because he was unsure of the safety of his devices and doubted their power to persuade his unreceptive contemporaries.” Twain’s reasons for suppressing any given work were complicated, often borne of an oversensitivity towards what might be too scandalous for his peers and the conflicting desire to speak his mind without damaging his public reputation.
Among the works that he suppressed over the course of his lifetime is “A Singular Episode: The Reception of Rev. Sam Jones in Heaven,” in which Twain lampoons the real-life Reverend Sam Jones, an evangelical crusader who drew crowds in the thousands. His wife, Olivia—as she had with several other works—refused to let him publish it, “probably deeming the sketch too disrespectful of the Archbishop of Canterbury,” according to The Bible According to Mark Twain’s introduction. Twain’s biographer Albert Bigelow Paine later claimed that Twain translated the work into German in the hopes of publishing the German version without his wife’s knowledge. But his conscience got the best of him—he eventually confessed, and the German version never saw the light of day.
Humor of the sort found in “A Singular Episode” and Letters from the Earth provided Twain an avenue to express his private cynicism indirectly. Like the court jester who is permitted to tell the truth insomuch as he makes the king laugh, Twain uses a tongue-in-cheek tone to write scathingly, for example, about the American invasion of the Philippines and to lambaste believers who pray for ill to befall others. Baender notes that Twain often uses a spokesperson—like Satan—to present his arguments and distance himself from his inflammatory ideas. In Letters from the Earth, his stand-in reads eerily like Twain himself: “Satan had been making admiring remarks…which, being read between the lines, were sarcasms. He had made them confidentially to his safe friends…but they had been overheard…By and by he wrote home—very privately.”
Writing from Satan’s point of view, Twain is unflinching in his criticism of humans and, by extension, the god who created them and doomed them to endless misery, “all for [Adam and Eve] disobeying a command which he had no right to utter.” Satan asks, “What shall we do? If we believe, with these people, that their God invented these cruel things, we slander him; if we believe that these people invented them themselves, we slander them.” This was the crux of Twain’s dilemma. He was a fervent student of history, and the history of humanity is replete with examples of inhumanity—much of it perpetrated in the name of religion, as Twain was well aware. “Of all the animals,” he writes, “man is the only one that is cruel.”
While he was a proponent of Darwin’s theory of evolution, in a selection from Letters from Earth titled “The Damned Human Race: Part V, The Lowest Animal,” Twain feigns skepticism about Darwinian theory in order to express a deep pessimism about humankind. Man, he argues, must have descended from the “higher animals” rather than risen from the “lower” ones, because man is the only animal that hoards riches, wages war, and develops theologies that justify the persecution of those who don’t share them. Twain offers the “Moral Sense”—the ability to distinguish right from wrong—as a defect stemming from the fall of Adam and Eve. According to Twain, moral sense is what distinguishes humans from other animals, and it therefore must be the source of all the suffering humans inflict upon one another. “[Man] is the only animal that loves his neighbor as himself,” Twain writes, “and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight.”
In our modern era, as we debate the function of satire in a crumbling republic—one not entirely different from the late 19th-century republic Twain viewed as crumbling or the decaying ninth-century one he presented as a metaphor for his time in Letters from the Earth—Twain’s work reminds us that while laughter can be powerful medicine, it can also function as the sugar that masks the medicine’s bitter taste and renders harsh societal truths more palatable.
“It was not the what but the how of his estimates of human creatures that gives his thinking permanent interest,” writes Quirk in Mark Twain and Human Nature. This how is what launched Twain’s distinguished career and what helped him persevere through tragedy and misfortune. In an interview in 1905, the year after Olivia’s death, Twain described humor as “nature’s effort to harmonize conditions.” He went on to note that “the further the pendulum swings out over woe the further it is bound to swing back over mirth.”
Four years later, Twain wrote an essay about the loss of his daughter Jean, the third child he buried. In a passage he later chose to omit from the published piece, Twain asked, “Shall I ever be cheerful again? Yes. And soon. For I know my temperament. And I know that the temperament is master of the man, and that he is its fettered and helpless slave and must in all things do as it commands. A man’s temperament is born in him, and no circumstances can ever change it.” Twain’s words, written months before his own death, refute the argument that his cynical worldview was borne of his hardships. Rather, that cynicism, expressed in satire, gave him a means with which to survive and make sense of them, even if that expression was sometimes unfit for the world he inhabited.